“It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes .. .were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different." —Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
I, like many bookish Black girls, found solace in Toni Morrison’s words, which made safe spaces for ourselves in the tortuous and beautiful lives of the characters she built. I saw my 14-year-old self in Pecola Breedlove’s mirror, and could relate as another little Black girl who thought being white would make me more desired, more likeable, and safer. In Morrison’s worlds, I learned that femininity comes in many shades, shapes, and personalities. She changed how I understood the world.
In her worlds, there is no one way to be a woman or a girl. There are boxes society created and there are Black people fitting in and breaking them at the same time. And regardless of the path each character took, there were always consequences. In more ways than one, like a skilled community organizer, Morrison agitated the popular sense of what should and could be. Her invitation into Black American life as one worthy of robust attention ignited my imagination as a young girl finding out who she would become in the world.
Morrison’s mastery of words make up for the inadequacies of the English language. She weaved together complex sentences that I often had to read over and over again. She could also be sharp with her charges to writers, telling us that, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” Those words motivated me to write my first book and break the fears I have in writing the next.
Ms. Morrison allowed me to understand Black feminist visions before I knew what radical Black feminisms were. She consistently challenged feminisms that rely on incomplete stories. My work to tell more complete stories in order to catalyze our collective ability to create more complete solutions exists in Morrison’s tradition. While she bared the souls of Black folk in pursuit of freedom, I realized that I had to bare my own in my writing if I want to get free. That is the work of a writer, to ignite conversations others work diligently to smother out — even if that someone is you.
As a Black woman with a queer sexuality, her essays, books, and published conversations expand my imagination and offer a perspective where I can see myself and my people. Even though Dr. Morrison often wrote about heterosexual relationships, many of her stories went well outside of the systems of power deemed “normal”in our society. Given the expansiveness of Black people’s experiences, the varying familial and intimate relationship arrangements, historical marginalization, oppression, and insistence for dignity — Blackness is queer.
Her work should be read over a lifetime, revisited through life and global transitions. I understand Polly differently as an adult woman than I did reading The Bluest Eye as a teenager. Since publishing my first book, I see Morrison’s diligence and discipline as a writer and editor with more compassion. And I’m sure that I will see her differently again once I become a mother.
Toni Morrison is with the ancestors now. And while she may no longer be here, in this world, in the flesh we recognize, I believe her spirit remains. As Black people, our work continues even after death. Our work doesn’t end when we become ancestors; it is heightened. Our loved ones call on us for guidance and wisdom. Those who we touched in some way may place our images on their altars. My good friend, and Black feminist, Rose Afriyie says that becoming an ancestor is our birthright as Black people. It is a realm where the chains of this world fall. If we believe that Morrison embodied what it means to be a free Black woman, imagine what is possible for her now?
Like many of our greatest intellectuals, artists, activists, and community organizers, Toni Morrison unapologetically wrote for Black people, to Black women, to Black men, and Black children. She is among the best of us working within the Black Radical Tradition because she bared the souls of Black folks through compelling, unapologetic, and deeply human stories and conversations.
“Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world,” she said in a 1981 conversation with New Republic. “That's what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for Black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only Black people. When I say 'people,' that's what I mean.”
Morrison wrote for us and touched the whole world at the same time. That is the embodiment of Black excellence. Because of this, we can love her and her genius as stewards with integrity. She, like so many Black women, gave so much to this world. Toni Morrison put Black life into prose that will endure, we will all always have that if we keep her legacy alive.
Keeping her legacy alive means that we all take up the work of collective liberation. “If you are free, you need to free somebody else," she would say to her students. "If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” It’s not enough to go through doors alone, we have to remove them so that others can come in behind us.
I am in solidarity with Black women crying in public places this week. At the same time, I am resisting the impulse to try to hold her as my own. I, nor we, own her. She is free, among the ancestors now. She witnessed Black womanhood in public, she named our mothers’ names, she saw value in our intimacies and found our vulnerabilities worthy of praise. In the wake of her death we must do the same for her, whether we do so through tears or not.
I am thankful for Ms. Morrison’s life and genius. May she rest well.